It looks old. Or maybe… “Classical.”
That might be your first thought. Graphically, it looks like an older real-time strategy game (RTS) in the vein of Age of Empires. That’ll attract some and deter others. But what They Are Billions offers that no other RTS can is the overwhelming amount of units onscreen at once.
That’s what initially sells the game. Swarms of zombies push forward onto your towers, and it’s hard to imagine ever repelling so many. It’s the eye-catching part of the trailer.
What you don’t see is the hours of fun-filled failure that led to that point.
A Steampunk Last Stand
You start a game of They Are Billions much like any RTS. A town centre, a few scouting units, and some randomly generated surroundings that always give you a certain amount of resources.
You expand by clearing fields of zombies, carefully advancing so you don’t attract too many at once.
There’s a bit of city management involved. Space is at a premium. Make sure you’ve got enough forest, stone, and grasslands within your walls for exploitation. Later on, you’ll agonise over the most efficient spots for banks, markets and warehouses, which affect the economy of nearby buildings.
This optimisation extends to the military. Where should you place your chokepoints? How many wall tiles can that ballista cover? Would another tower be more effective, or two rows of barbed wire?
And then — while you were pondering — you die.
Check Your Corners
More often than not, some sneaky zombie sent to test your defences will find a hole. As soon as they infect a building, it’s game over.
It’s brutal. Downright brutal. You might’ve spent an hour by that point, still in the early tech tiers, and the game decided to poke your weak wall with more zombies than you could handle. Or maybe there happened to be an overgrown big boy zombie your archers couldn’t kill in time.
Your only saving graces are a pause button that lets you build and issue orders, and the zombie AI. They really do act like dumb zombies, and will attack whatever is in front of them regardless if it’s strategic.
It feels a little better to die to one of the scheduled waves, which get massive even before the titular “They Are Billions” wave at the end. That last one comes from all directions on the default difficulty setting. Below is a wave 73% of the way through a game.
They Are Billions does so many things that I usually can’t stand, yet I still love it. The biggest one, which will ultimately force me to stop playing, is the three hours required for a game.
There’s no “Save As,” which is fine because it allows you to continue your sole current playthrough if you need to walk away. It’s not wholly respectful of your time, though.
In fact, I would recommend looking up Youtube videos to see just what you’re up against in the later stages of the game. But if you’ve got the time to trial & error your way through later tech tiers, more power to you.
It also offered me an endgame unit early in one of my games, which I happily clicked on without realising it would agro the entire map. Might’ve wanted to mention that, They Are Billions.
Keeping Zombies Fresh
When a game offers something this unique, it’s allowed to break a few rules. It’s also incredible how many different ways there are to play. I see countless players thinking they’ve discovered “the” solution, when it only turns out to be one of many.
It’s horribly addictive and time-consuming, and given it’s still early days for its Early Access, I expect it to become more feature rich and fixed.
One thing it certainly is right now is fun. I haven’t even won a game yet, and it doesn’t matter. Losing is constant and guaranteed while you’re new — but that doesn’t impede it from gripping that optimisation part of your brain for a few solid hours.